One-time News of Orange Editor Kevin Meredith leads his readers into a journey back to the wild days of rampant abductions in the early-to-mid-1930s in his new release, “Under Penalty of Death: The Untold Story of Machine Gun Kelly’s First Kidnapping.”
The 374-page account — available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble — zeroes in on the long-ago buried and neglected crime that saw legendary lawbreaker “Machine Gun” Kelly (aka George Kelly Barnes of Memphis, Tennessee) approach mogul Howard Arthur Woolverton, his wife and the Studebaker’s (of automobile fame) after a movie viewing on Jan. 26, 1932 and snatch the male half of the Woolvertons in his custody for ransom.
“Overall, it was just kind of a forgotten story because Woolverton had friends in high places in Indiana and he didn’t want to talk about it, and J. Edgar Hoover (the country’s first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation) covered it up for his own reasons that I speculate on in the book,” said Meredith, who collaborated on the project with David W. Hendry — a direct descendant and grandson of Woolverton.
The victim in this case was held hostage for about 24 hours, as the gangster had to come down from his original request of $50,000 — the equivalent of $2 million today — cash ransom to $8,000, which was still considered a fortune about 90 years ago.
The incident, per Meredith, ignited the widespread coverage of kidnappings, as a burgeoning sense of fear permeated the country that no longer felt quite as safe as it did in previous years.
The kidnapping enterprise, as some described it, evolved from a practice in which hoodlums killed off their own to a pattern where well-to-do citizens and their family members were forcibly whisked into getaway cars in exchange of thousands of dollars.
Law enforcement turned a blind eye to the underworld movement when it only involved society’s ne’er-do-wells, but the new series of transgressions targeting innocent individuals forced the FBI to take action.
But while the Woolverton episode was huge news when it first happened, its notoriety was almost immediately superseded by the the kidnapping and eventual murder of Charles Lindberg Jr., the 20-month-old son of the eponymous aviator about six weeks later.
It wouldn’t be long, in fact, before the “Lindbergh Law” was enacted.
“In the summer of ’32, this law was passed and it shut down kidnapping. J. Edgar Hoover, to his immense credit, really jumped on it. Within three or four years, he brought the full force of the federal government to bear on these kidnappings,” continued Meredith, who currently resides in Columbia, South Carolina.
“He could do things like print a list of every serial number of every bill that was paid in ransom and then he’d print these up — thousands of copies. He’d distribute them to gas stations, department stores, grocery stores all over the country. And these tellers and clerks would take a standard $20 bill, they would look at it … and they would now find them on the list.”
Any ransom currency collected by the perpetrators would emerge useless as a result.
Law enforcement agents fiercely cracked down on suspected kidnappers, contacting their family members and advising them that they too would be subject to multiple years of jail time if they acted as accomplices to their wanted relative.
As for what ultimately become of the apprehended parties with new federal kidnapping legislation in place, they would either perish in a hail of bullets or rot away in a prison facility for the rest of their lives.
“Machine Gun” Kelly was part of the latter group, who after his capture for the kidnapping of Charles Urschel in July of 1933 — in the midst of a family game of bridge — was sentenced to life imprisonment. The then 33-year-old would go on to spend the remainder of his years above ground in the Leavenworth, Kansas-based U.S. Penitentiary.
After the peak of human abductions from 1934-1935, estimated the California-born and Florida-raised author, ransom crimes tapered off in dramatic fashion over the next three years to where kidnappings were no longer a major concern at the start of the new decade.
Meredith went on to describe the cultural impact of the rather brief, but harrowing era by apprising The News of Orange of a song written about a 12-year-old hostage, Marion Parker, who was tragically picked up from school by a stranger and subsequently killed and dismembered in what’s widely considered one of the most horrific homicides of the 20th Century.
And though Parker’s heart-wrenching demise wasn’t the only tragedy to occur from the crimes in question, the book highlights the role of Hoover and the FBI in glowing, if not heroic, terms.
“It’s one of the most successful federal projects ever, in my opinion, because it turned [kidnapping] into nothing within about five years,” concluded Meredith.
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